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Maritime: The Latest Hot Market for Satellite

By | May 1, 2013

      The maritime communications landscape is undergoing a rapid and fundamental change. New entrants and new offerings are challenging the model that was once dominated by the simplicity and reliability of L-band communications largely provided by Inmarsat.

      The incursion of FSS VSAT players into maritime has been going on since the early 2000s, but for many years it was assumed that ship owners favored global coverage over service speed and, despite the apparent benefits of fixed price offers, they preferred a pay-as-you-go airtime model.

      Like a taste of forbidden fruit, the increasing penetration of VSAT has shown owners that it is possible to have both predictable pricing and higher throughput. This has not been lost on the incumbent Inmarsat or its competitor Intelsat, which have both announced plans for VSAT offerings to serve what they see as a burgeoning market for maritime satcoms. At the same time, newer entrant O3b Networks is targeting the cruise sector touting even higher bandwidth services for guest and business use.

      While high throughput satellites (HTS) produce some exciting numbers – speeds in megabytes rather than kilobits – it also introduces the era of the managed network and onboard ship with a more complex hardware platform and software suite. This new era comes at a time when shipping is only just beginning to recover from a four-year downturn precipitated by the global financial crisis and exacerbated by an ordering spree which has produced a record overhang in the order book and in delivered tonnage for which there is no profitable employment.

      Some analysts are calling the recovery for 2013 but others believe next year is the earliest we should expect improvement and, even if it happens, the recovery will be partial and volatile at best.


      Bone of Contention

      One bone of contention has been in the form of two years of price increases by Inmarsat – first through discount removals and this year in a 16 percent increase to its pay-as-you-go FleetBroadband (FBB) service and a 10 percent hike in rates for “existing and evolved” legacy services. Inmarsat blames the former on the preference of VSAT vendors to use FBB as a back up, though it now admits the service was underpriced on release. And it blames the latter on the costs associated of with maintaining its legacy satellite and ground station network. The company has made no secret that it sees the future less in pay as you go and more in dedicated data packages with greater commitment from customers.

      The price hikes have also given Inmarsat’s VSAT competitors their best opportunity in a decade to eat away at its position, but despite a growing incursion into high-end shipping segments, VSAT remains a niche choice. Successful service launches by Inmarsat and Intelsat risk moving the mainstream market further from the VSAT vendor’s grasp once their Global Xpress and EpicNG services are up and running.

      Certainly both traditional and nascent airtime and software providers see opportunity in the maritime sector.

      With bunker fuel the biggest component of ship operating costs, the ability to manage ship speed and behavior to save fuel could make the difference between a profitable voyage and a loss leader. The opportunity to shave fuel bills by optimizing trim, adjusting speed, maintaining engine performance and routing around bad weather and into favorable currents now exists using software to monitor onboard systems and collate the data for analysis.

      Most agree that saving money is the current priority. But there are other drivers: a regulatory requirement to use electronic charts, vessel tracking and reporting, cargo monitoring, and other machine-to-machine applications.

      Also driving demand up is crew calling, or more accurately crew data access, a market that has boomed as shortages of trained personnel have increased. Reputable owners now talk of crew calling as a must for retention and more and more subsidize the cost to deliver it free or cheap at the point of use. This is driving a smaller scale version of the Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) phenomenon onboard ships, with some owners and managers WiFi-enabling the accommodation decks and letting the crew get on with it.

      Despite the headlines, many ships operate at data rates well below 512 Kbps and many owners continue to insist that they have little need to send or receive more data.

      Ship owners and managers seem far more willing to remember the days when a voice call was $10 a minute rather focus on the cents for which they can today send or receive megabytes of data. Communications takes up an estimated 1 percent of daily operating costs, but all vendors require a thick skin and flexibility when dealing with maritime customers.

      Competition is fierce, especially since Inmarsat bought its distribution partner Stratos to offer services direct. Equipment and airtime services are being strongly discounted in order to gain market share ahead of the HTS era with upgrade paths seeking to lock in users and value added software providers.

      Denmark-based Torm is a long-established product tanker and bulk carrier company, which has firsthand experience of the recession, recently securing its future only after coming to agreements with creditors when on the brink of insolvency. The company was a first mover in maritime VSAT, installing 2.5-meter C-band antennas but as Vice President, Fleet & Newbuilding Support Allan Rasmussen explains, expense in both installation and operations meant the solution was not rolled out on all vessels.

      “That first contract was very supplier-driven. Last year we sat down internally and agreed on what we want and how we want it to look. In the end we chose a new supplier [Inmarsat XpressLink] for Ku-band VSAT with FleetBroadband backup. This will be installed across all our vessels this year and next as the existing contracts expire.”

      Rasmussen says he sees data demand growing simply because users will come to demand connections of similar speeds as are enjoyed ashore. “It will never be the same over satellite, but we are moving from our old contract, where we were in a position of having 256 Kbps shared with up to 10 vessels, to one where we have 128 Kbps dedicated per vessel. It’s a huge step up.”


      Price Rises

      The changing dynamics of the market mean that Angelos Demetriou, IT Officer for Cyprus-based ship owner and manager Intership Navigation is looking at what HTS might deliver, while also coping with short term uncertainties.

      Inmarsat’s price rises have seen the company move its ships equipped with Inmarsat-B and Fleet 77 to Iridium OpenPort. On its ships equipped with FleetBroadband, it has moved from the pay as you go plan to the entry-level fixed price package.

      “All the ships we have built have had the latest systems and we don’t switch for the sake of it. We are switching to OpenPort now because of the Inmarsat price increases and we are not the only ones doing this. All our F77 vessels were affected dramatically and there is another 10 percent rise this March,” he says.

      Intership is working on plans to enable Internet onboard either via VSAT or L-band but Demetriou says market conditions and the evolution of services means the company wants to hedge its bets. “The way it is right now is not easy and binding ourselves for three or four years would be hard, especially when we hear promises from everyone of bigger and cheaper things coming in a couple of years,” he says.

      We have to be aware of the position of the [HTS] provider. Will they make a successful launch and what happens if the service fails? We would like to use such technology, but maybe in two or three years when we know how reliable they are and there is a market. We don’t want to be the guinea pigs in this scenario.
      ­— Raimo Warkki, Ship Communication & Systems

      According to Demetriou, Intership’s proposals have included asking vendors if they can rent equipment for one to two years rather than lease it and using shorter contracts to manage its technology risk.

      “In turbulent times you might sell the ship, but what happens to your four year contract? You still have to pay; you might be able to transfer it but if Ka-band comes in cheaper and you are still paying a higher rate for two years, you have a problem. Hopefully [the market] will get better and we will have more money to spend, but we need space to move until then,” says Demetriou.

      More than half its ships trade globally, and two already use VSAT because of their large crew compliment and trade patterns. These ships also carry crew in training so they require additional bandwidth for e-learning programs. These ships use FleetBroadband as back up and Demetriou says the company is feeling the pain from the pay as you go price rises, since the remote areas they sail to often lack Ku-band coverage.

      Demetriou says Intership is “definitely looking into” HTS services but adds that everything is still an option. “You can do a lot of things with VSAT like remote monitoring but crew retention is the real driving force. The software we use for business has a great deal of compression. That data would include maintenance, operational programs, chart and weather updates – anything you could think of – but we got it down to 120MB a month. It’s crucial that the data is optimized for the maritime environment.”

      Tanker owner Laurin Maritime also uses a purpose-designed business suite for replication of databases, maintenance, updating navigation charts and crew management software. A recent upgrade has also seen this owner move from C-band VSAT to XpressLink’s Ku-band VSAT with free rollover to FleetBroadband, giving it 512 Kbps across the fleet. Pär Brandholm, Environmental Manager, Laurin Maritime says having the Internet available makes it possible for senior officers to keep track of manufacturer offers, perform general price comparisons and obtain technical data as well as doing general reporting.

      “Originally the driver was crew welfare onboard. But the bandwidth demand has increased over the years as we have found many fields where we can improve both communication and access software for maintenance, navigation charts and support data,” he says.


      Stena Rederi

      Stena Rederi is a family-owned passenger and ferry operator, running 36 ships on 20 routes, working mainly around North-West Europe. All Stena Line ships feature a base package of Ku-band VSAT, with either four or six telephone channels and a separate administration network with Inmarsat Fleet F77 installed on some ships. Operating in the ferry trades means the company is obliged to offer Internet access to guests and have enough bandwidth to support business and commercial activities.

      It also offers GSM solutions on some ships, which Raimo Warkki, Manager, Commercials, Ship Communication & Systems, says takes a load off the satellite communications system, and provides better performance, with less latency for both passengers and crew. “We provide free Internet for guests onboard and also have conferences on some ships, so there is quite heavy pressure on the satcom links,” says Warkki. “Demand is increasing and if more bandwidth is needed, it’s from Internet functionality. More and more people want to use their own devices onboard.”

      He notes satcom demand varies according to business sector, with Stena’s tanker business looking more at the bottom line and cost control with occasional real-time communications. “Stena Line needs an always-on service so that we can verify credit cards for guests shopping onboard. That means an open channel with enough bandwidth to support it,” Warkki comments. The company is looking into HTS offerings but that there is a strong desire to manage the risks new services present too. “We have to be aware of the position of the provider. Will they make a successful launch and what happens if the service fails? We would like to use such technology, but maybe in two or three years when we know how reliable they are and there is a market. We don’t want to be the guinea pigs in this scenario,” Warkki says.

      Communications are so important to the passenger shipping business that reliability is paramount. The potential vulnerability of Ka-band signal to rain fade (also present on Ku-band) means that delivered performance of Global Xpress and EpicNG is “a theoretical calculation at this point,” according to Warkki.

      Probably more important is the relationship that Stena has with its provider Marlink, something Warkki says has continued to evolve over time. “The supplier needs to take a keen interest in their customer and they need to develop the relationship, at least when you are a ferry company with number of different services,” he says. “It’s crucial for us to sit down with them and share information and have creative discussions. That information exchange means of course that they inform us on their developments too.”

      And he recalls earlier attempts to re-shape the maritime market, which focused on low cost but ultimately foundered on undelivered services. “I was at an industry conference some years ago, this was the time of new entrants in the market promising very low prices. I asked them, what do you get for such a low price? Because the real cost of these services is not that first price, it is the integration, with IP or a PABX system. Then it starts to cost money,” Warkki says.

      Ultimately, even owners that recognize the value of satcoms still see them if not as a luxury, then certainly as expensive. Laurin will be moving to GlobalXpress in due course but Brandholm says ship owners are always looking for ways to manage expenditure. “We have a long relationship with our provider that we are very satisfied with. We have four times higher bandwidth and a lower monthly cost but it is still high. Owners will always want lower prices but I wouldn’t call it a burden, it’s something that we have to have,” Brandholm says.